After a winter spent honing his show jumping skills, Doug Payne is back eventing and earning top results. Three of his advanced horses had their second outing of the year at the $50,000 Grand-Prix Eventing at Bruce’s Field in Aiken, South Carolina, held March 4-5, and he ended the weekend in three of the top six spots, with Quantum Leap taking third place, Starr Witness fourth and Vandiver sixth.
Payne, 40, operates his business out of Rougemont, North Carolina, alongside his wife, Jess. He started showing in FEI jumper classes in 2014, and over the years his involvement in the sport has grown to the point where his time now is split almost evenly between eventing and show jumping. He’s also started playing with Grand Prix dressage movements on his 2019 Pan American Games team gold medal-winning mount Starr Witness, an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Chello III—Carmen) he co-owns with Laurie McRee and Catherine Winter.
At this year’s Land Rover Kentucky, Doug will be especially busy with veterans Vandiver and Quantum Leap running in the CCI5*-L, Starr Witness and Camarillo doing the CC4*-S, and his top jumper Quintessence jumping in the CSI3* show jumping competition as well.
We caught up with Doug following his big weekend at Bruce’s Field to discuss Grand-Prix Eventing and his plans for the future.
How did you feel about how your horses performed this weekend?
They were exceptionally good. All three [had close to] the best scores they’ve ever had in that five-star [dressage] test. I was just really happy. They were all remarkably better. There’s still stuff to work out, but they’re heading in the right direction.
“Quantum” [an 11-year-old Thoroughbred-Holsteiner cross (Quite Capitol—Report To Sloopy) owned by the Paynes] jumped great. He’s a super special horse. He’s done two five-stars, and he actually did his first grand prix last fall jumping, so he’s generally speaking quite scopey and careful. He’s probably not the most normal horse there is, but he tries his heart out, and in his own way he finds it very easy for him. That’s going to be a whole lot of fun because he’s starting to sort of grow up and become more comfortable, especially on the flat. He was far more settled this past weekend than he can be at times.
Starr Witness had a very unusual rail. I don’t know if it was lighting or whatever, but she had a real oddball in the two-stride and just took it all out, but honestly, she jumped great otherwise. Every once in a while, something like that is going to happen. And Vandiver [an 18-year-old Trakhener (Windfall—Visions of Grandeur) he co-owns with breeder Debi Crowley], he was great as well.
It was a challenging [show jumping] course. I was really excited to see the ground jury chose to keep the time allowed on the snug side, which I think is advantageous.
In my opinion, throughout the country, I think we need practice with that because it puts that little bit of extra pressure on, and certainly at championships that’s what’s going to happen. It doesn’t do us any service to have the time allowed slow, so glad to see that. I was glad to see the same cross-country. I think it was challenging. The time was attainable, but without out a doubt you had to be super efficient and potentially take some chances, and my horses all kind of stepped up to the plate and jumped around.
Why did you think this would be a good fit for them?
I love these competitions, personally. I think it’s great because the atmosphere is unparalleled as far as a lead up competition. The only place you’d see atmosphere like this would probably be at the championship stuff. So getting a place where you can put them in that environment I think is super helpful. The dressage and show jumping is pretty stiff, and the cross-country being a little shorter, it’s not a huge physical exertion on them. But I think mentally it’s challenging and sets you up really, really well for your either four- or five-star long competitions. You have to be on the ball and super quick on your feet and have a plan and be ready to go to plan B if it’s not going to work, and all of that comes at you in rapid form. I think it’s just great, great practice.
We lived in Aiken for seven years, so it’s kind of a home away from home. It’s always good to be back, and the community supports that competition so much. I’m on the board of the competition as well.
You mentioned Quantum did a grand prix last year. Is that something you’re doing more of with your event horses?
We often bring whichever event horses need the most practice along with us [to jumper shows]. We’ve got some going to Ocala [Tuesday], so then, on that trip to the show probably half of those are straight jumpers, and half of those then would be event horses. “Quinn” [Vandiver] and Quantum would generally jump in the 1.30s, 1.40s, but [Quantum] jumped really well.
Quantum wouldn’t be one that’s going to be fazed by anything. We put him in the Welcome [at Tryon (North Carolina)], and he jumped really well. And there honestly weren’t that many people in the prix, so I’m like, ‘You know what, let’s give it a shot.’ It wasn’t going to be built massive-massive, and there weren’t a ton of people in it, so it just made sense to give it a shot. He was still sixth. I was super proud of him.
Because we’re split [between disciplines], and we just have not that much time, we have to be selective about what competitions we do. We honestly don’t go to that many small events anymore, but we’ll bring the 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds along with us on the road jumping. And what we’ve founds is that they can get accustomed to the far-more-chaotic environment of a jumper show, and when they get to an event it’s a pretty low-key affair.
We’re lucky enough at our new place here that we’ve got a bunch of cross-country. Jumping’s jumping, and frankly there’s a couple little nuances and differences, but they just don’t need that many runs. We’ve developed a system that seems to give them a lot of confidence.
Starr Witness didn’t compete a ton last year, but you’ve been playing with some Grand Prix dressage movements with her. What’s the plan for her?
She didn’t do a whole lot last fall. She’d done three four[-star] longs; she was not ready for a five-star yet. And we were jumping a bunch of the guys at the three-star at Split Rock [Aiken International], which was the same weekend as the Tryon long, and so it wasn’t a huge incentive to push after Tokyo [Olympics, where Vandiver was the highest-placed U.S. horse]. The only other [four-star] long option was Morven [Virginia], and that would’ve been pretty tight for her, fitness-wise. So I just jumped her and did a bunch of flatwork with her.
My sort of outside-of-eventing goal with her is she’ll be a Grand Prix dressage horse also. She’s got her piaffe-passage. She’s got ones. Everything’s basically there, and now I’m starting to get polished. I’ve got my USDF silver [medal], but I don’t have the scores for the gold yet, so this is kind of my bucket list. I’ve got a horse now that can do it, so why not, right?
What made you decide to start playing with upper level dressage with her?
I guess there’s some horses that just kind of offer it a bit, so if it seems easy for them then you kind of go down that road a little bit and see how they respond. She is a wicked, wicked smart horse, and in all honesty is better with the more you throw at her. If it gets kind of monotonous and boring, she’s going to find something to get distracted about, so the more that you’re challenging her mentally the more she focuses and the better she is. So I figured there’s no harm in going and seeing what we’ve got.
Through the summer, [I] started playing with the sequence changes and got down to the twos pretty reliable, and I was like, “Oh, let’s see if we can get the ones.” Now I can do a line of whatever; we’re totally good. Just totally natural at the piaffe, passage. The canter pirouettes right now would probably be the weakest thing that she’s got. And then just putting it all together. It’s one thing if you’ve got unlimited time to be able to set up each individual component, but then to string it all together in a test is that much more. So that’s what we’re working on now is just getting a bit stronger and being able to tie things together seamlessly.
It’s funny, we’ve had a couple people say. “Oh, is that going to take away from eventing?” But actually it’s easier and better because she’s quite a bit stronger. Sometimes on a tight rollback [to the] right she [used to] fall out a little bit, but now she’s totally seamless with it. It’s actually helped a ton. She’s super careful, so it’s not like you really have to hold her or put her together or manufacture anything, You kind of can stay quite soft with your hand and she sets herself up, so it makes it a whole of fun.
Can you tell me a little bit about your young stallion Quiberon (Quite Easy—Avalon), who is doing both eventing and international hunter derbies?
[We] bought him as a weanling. He and Camarillo (Chicardo—Rehobeth), the one who just stepped up to advanced, are actually bred by Quantum’s breeder, Didi Callahan. It’s a bit the same in his development; he’s a pretty level-headed, chill guy. We often jump the babies anyway and he’s very good with the front end and super there, so we actually instead of putting them in the jumper classes I just put him in some baby greens. You’re going to get the experience jumping period, but might as well do it where he could potentially do some more.
It’s a different challenge, but frankly good riding is good riding, and you can learn a ton from it. He’s done three international derbies now, and he actually jumped in the 6-year-olds last year also, so he’s jumped through a 1.30 as well. He just did his first intermediate at Pine Top [Georgia]. The goal is to do three-star long at Tryon. And when he comes along [to jumper shows] he does the internationals.
It’s a pretty unique set up, that’s for sure. Clearly it’s a different shape and frame and feel, but it’s a learned skill. He’s very, very unique and trainable in that you’re able to vary anything you want. You can sort of put him down low and slow a little easier, or if you want him a little more up he’s good with all of it.
We actually have a weanling that’s out of Starr Witness by him, which is pretty cool, and we did an embryo transfer for him. His name is Judge, and he’s, like, the leggiest creature ever. He’s just coming on a year now. Who knows what he’ll do, but it’s the same owner group that we’ve got together for Starr Witness too, so it’s a lot of fun.
Is there anything specific you’ve learned from doing the hunters?
The hunters are so good at not interfering with the horses at all. The eventing you have to protect the front end so much, so I think innately it tends to create a situation where you tend to get a little bit more hollow probably and a little bit tighter in that way, so being able to accomplishing the same thing as far as getting the horses to jump in a good shape and jump clean and all that while doing less is a big challenge, but it’s something that we’re working toward all the time.